Monday, February 18, 2008

The larger meaning behind Clinton v. Obama

A few months back, I heard a discussion about how the Clinton/Obama race was actually representative of a serious strategic dispute among Democratic Party factions. The Clinton team, that is, consisted of the James Carville/Mark Penn types who studied the red/blue maps and wanted to ignore the reddest and bluest of the states in order to focus all general election campaign efforts on the "swing" states. The Obama team, conversely, was an outgrowth of Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, which sought to grow the Democratic Party by competing in areas they didn't normally compete in and keeping Republicans on the defensive everywhere.

I didn't think too much of this theory at the time, but the behavior of these campaigns during the primaries is lending some credence to it. The Clinton team has been very strategic, putting all its eggs into a few key baskets and ignoring a lot of smaller states that just couldn't produce that many delegates. The problem with this strategy is that it works until it doesn't. They didn't bank on Obama being competitive in the large states. Fine, no one really did a year ago, but team Clinton didn't have a backup plan. Their plan was rigid. Obama, meanwhile, really has played to his strengths in some areas and played to at least not lose by much in others. He hasn't written any areas off.

Now, of course, targeting one's campaign to a few key states makes perfect sense when resources are limited. But here's the thing -- the Clinton team had the closest thing to unlimited resources we ever see in these sorts of campaigns. She had scads of money and a lock on early party endorsements. She could have been competitive everywhere. Obama has managed to do that with no more resources than she has.

Bringing this argument to the general election, yes, it makes sense to target ruthlessly in most years, writing off the reddest states because spending resources there is wasteful. But this is not most years. I believe the Democrats took the Senate in 2006 precisely because they were not willing to write off places like Montana and Virginia, which have not been kind to them in recent years. The Republican Party is facing tough times right now, largely due to the war, and an aggressive campaign to compete in more conservative areas can pay dividends down the road. I think the Obama strategy is the smarter one in this environment.

No comments: